Writing for Children's Books with Mo Willems
Children's Book Author/Illustrator/Cartoonist
New York City, New York
Your pal Mo Willems has been successful in many different careers from his Emmy award winning writing on Sesame Street, Caldecott honors as a children’s book author/illustrator, to creating his own animated series on television, Sheep in the Big City. His career has been a true testament of perseverance and trial and error. His colorful artwork allows his characters to say a great deal without talking much or at all, and his youthful energy and clever humor appeals to both children and adults. The Career Cookbook was thrilled to speak with him and listen to his valuable advice. Mo stressed patience, not being afraid to put your ideas out into the world, and most importantly practicing what you do as much as you can. It was wonderful getting a chance to find out more about this funny and imaginative writer.
CCB: When did you realize you wanted to be a children’s book author / illustrator / cartoonist?
MW: From the day I realized my desire to become a gas station attendant was a mere pipe dream, I resolved to make my way making funny drawings.
CCB: What interests you about working in this field?
MW: I would make an awful lawyer. I would be a terrible doctor. In fact there is nothing besides drawing and making jokes that I could ever do with any degree of skill.
CCB: What is a typical day on the job for you? Do you have any routines or rituals when you create?
MW: I sacrifice a circus horse every morning in a giant cauldron staffed by wayward children and feral cats. Oh, wait. I probably shouldn’t have said that. Let’s start over.
Well, one thing I certainly never, ever, ever do is sacrifice a circus horse every morning in a giant cauldron staffed by wayward children and feral cats. That’s not legal, ethical, or my style.
There is no typical day for me, which is both exciting and unfortunate. Sometimes I yearn for the simplicity of just drawing and writing all day, but business, promotions, travel, and press get in the way.
CCB: Have you had any mentors in your career? Is there anyone who you look up to or anyone who inspires you?
MW: There are lots of people whose work inspired me enough to try and emulate (or steal from) them, especially as a young guy. The list is long and would include Charles Shultz, Ronald Searle, Andre Francois, Saul Steinberg, William Steig, John Hubley, Fiep Westendorp, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Alexander Calder, the Eames (Mr.&Mrs.), Isamu Noguchi, Louie Armstrong, John Cleese, Bill Cosby, and the Marx Brothers.
Unfortunately, none of those guys every pulled me under their wings.
CCB: How did you learn about illustrating and writing for books and television?
MW: By doing and failing and doing and failing. I did get a degree in Film at NYU, where I primarily made animated shorts, but I learned more at my first (short lived) gig as a studio animator in New York and as a writer for Sesame Street.
As a young guy I made as much stuff as possible: fliers, comics, illustrations, osters, stand-up, comedy shows, ceramics, script writing, indie radio. I’ve re-written and re-dubbed a Russian Animated feature, taken photos for the covers of books about mental disorders, had a weekly comic strip for a Real Estate newspaper, did commentary for the BBC, written patter for costumed mascots for Monster Truck Rallies, exhibited wire sculptures in a friend’s loft, acted in a Dutch amusement park film about submarines, hung art in a Soho Gallery, bartended for Mardi Gras Balls, cleaned rooms in an London old folks home, and even paid my dental bills by holding a comedy benefit. I did anything I could do to scratch up some cash and get my work out there.
By the time that people started coming to me with more established jobs, I was ready.
While my career has worked out for me, not much has changed since those early days: I’m still learning, working hard, experimenting. I have a nicer drawing table now, I suppose.
CCB: What qualities do you think are necessary to be a successful writer/illustrator?
MW: A vision, a voice, a work ethic, and (most importantly) an electric pencil sharpener.
CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job?
MW: Every project you begin is like starting all over. It’s like you have to re-learn how to write and draw.
CCB: Is there anything that people would be surprised to learn about your job?
MW: The degree of thoughtful collaboration that goes on between your editor, art director, and agent. Every bookmaker has a support system that takes their shaky ideas and helps nudge them into shape.
CCB: What surprised you the most?
MW: The almost leisurely pace of production compared to cable TV, which allows for more thoughtful work. Cartoon shows require a huge volume of work to be cranked out quickly; there is little time for reflection.
CCB: How did it work when you were writing for Sesame Street? Did you write for the individual characters but with an educational focus?
MW: A writer would be given a sheet denoting the letter and number of the day, available cast members/puppeteers, and the short films to be included in that episode. It was up to you to devise a funny story based on the curriculum goals of that season. It could get tricky with puppeteers that did more than one character. You couldn’t make an episode featuring Big Bird hanging out with Oscar the Grouch, for instance, as they’re both performed by the same guy.
CCB: Were you really a bubble gum card painter? How did you become involved
MW: I was broke (see above). Fortunately, one of the (very few) guys who would come and see my comedy shows on Ludlow Street was the cartoonist Mark Newgarden. At the time, in addition to his weekly strip at NYPress, he worked at Topps bubble gum company (Mark created the Garbage Pail Kids there). He kindly hired me and another unemployable stand-up to paint the art for the first series of Nicktoons bubble gum cards. Thanks, Mark.
CCB: How did it feel the first time you saw your books in stores/your cartoon on television or heard your words on Sesame Street?
MW: I’m oddly detached from my work once it comes out. By the time the work is released, I’m on the next project. Besides, the stories have taken on such a life of their own, it seems like they’re no longer mine.
CCB: What is it like to work with puppets?
MW: Great. They make unfunny lines seem funny.
CCB: With Sheep in the Big City did you know from the beginning that he would not speak?
MW: Have you ever heard of a talking sheep? Ridiculous.
Sheep was patterned on two of my favorite film stars: Gerald McBoing Boing and Harpo Marx. To me, Sheep’s inability to speak was, oddly, more realistic, desperate, and, hopefully, funny.
CCB: When you work on a show that you created, like Sheep in the Big City, how much control over the material do you have? How much control does the network have?
MW: I could pretty much write and animate anything I wanted while making Sheep. CN had the ultimate control, however; they canceled the show.
CCB: After working in TV what compelled you to write picture books?
MW: The freedom to express myself on a more personal level and the freedom to have lunch at home. Books allow for more experimentation because they cost less to make than TV shows.
CCB: When writing for children how do you predict what they will understand or enjoy?
MW: All you can do is respect kids’ intelligence, be as funny as you can and hope for the best. It helps to realize that children are, by and large, human beings like the rest of us. If I write and draw for human beings without irony, I’ll probably do okay.
CCB: Do the different mediums you have worked in, whether in television with puppets, animation, or picture books, offer different creative challenges and rewards?
MW: Every project presents a myriad of new challenges. My writing for Sheep was an individual effort, KND (Kids Next Door) was highly collaborative.
You must constantly strike a new balance between your audience, your sponsor, your budget, your schedule, and your ability.
I have discovered that, by and large, it is actually easier to do good work. Hack stuff always takes longer and is harder.
CCB: When you create characters for picture books is it difficult to give them a personality within such a limited space?
MW: Character comes first. Finding a short enough story to explain them is a challenge.
CCB: Where do you find the inspiration for you characters? Did you model the pigeon, with his quick temper on anyone you know? Do any of your characters resemble people in your life?
MW: Everything I write is completely true, especially the stuff I make up.
CCB: What medium do you create your artwork with?
MW: Even as a cartoonist, the story determines the medium. Initially, I render my characters in various mediums to determine what seems the most comfortable for the book. I’ve used a variety of inks, pencils, charcoals, and papers so far.
CCB: How did you decide to write about a pigeon and a sheep? Is there any particular reason you picked those animals?
MW: Sheep are stupid, pigeons are relentless, and hippopotami do not fit comfortably on the page.
CCB: Is there any possibility of an animated series with the pigeon?
MW: A distant one. I’ve been approached by various companies, but as of yet I’ve been unwilling to give up control of the pigeon (like anyone can control him!).
CCB: Have you ever thought about writing strictly for an adult audience?
MW: I wrote (but did not illustrate) a comic book series for DC entitled the 7th Helper, which is adult if by adult you mean kick-ass battles and exploding robots. Unfortunately, DC won’t release them.
This spring a volume of daily drawings I made while traveling around the world for a year in the early 90’s will be released as You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When it Monsoons. Dave Barry wrote a very funny intro.
CCB: Is there any advice you could offer for people interested in becoming a children’s book author/illustrator/ cartoonist/ or a writer on a television show?
MW: Write. Draw. Many authors advise that you read a lot. Sure, reading is fine, but that just makes you a better reader. Writers write. Drawers draw.
On a practical level, it takes great perseverance and patience to survive in these businesses. Don’t be afraid to put your stuff out there. Often I get kids who tell me they’re afraid of someone stealing their ideas. Well, if you’ve only got one idea that might be a concern, but if you know your craft, you’ll be able to come up with more.
CCB: What can we expect from our pal Mo Willems in the future?
MW: I have a full slate of books I’m working on including some early readers about an optimistic pig and a pessimistic elephant and a chapter book about an invisible invention machine. I’m also kicking around an idea for a novel, but given my schedule, that might take a while.
* Interview conducted by Michael Maniaci
*Visit your pal Mo Willems at his official web site: mowillems.com